Spare That Woodman
By DAVE DRYFOOS
The single thing to fear was fear—ghastly, walking fear!
Stiff with shock, Naomi Heckscher stood just inside the door to Cappy's one-room cabin, where she'd happened to be when her husband discovered the old man's body.
Her nearest neighbor—old Cappy—dead. After all his wire-pulling to get into the First Group, and his slaving to make a farm on this alien planet, dead in bed!
Naomi's mind circled frantically, contrasting her happy anticipations with this shocking actuality. She'd come to call on a friend, she reminded herself, a beloved friend—round, white-haired, rosy-cheeked; lonely because he'd recently become a widower. To her little boy, Cappy was a combination Grandpa and Santa Claus; to herself, a sort of newly met Old Beau.
Her mouth had been set for a sip of his home brew, her eyes had pictured the delight he'd take in and give to her little boy.
She'd walked over with son and husband, expecting nothing more shocking than an ostentatiously stolen kiss. She'd found a corpse. And to have let Cappy die alone, in this strange world ...
She and Ted could at least have been with him, if they'd known.
But they'd been laughing and singing in their own cabin only a mile away, celebrating Richard's fifth birthday. She'd been annoyed when Cappy failed to show up with the present he'd promised Richard. Annoyed—while the old man pulled a blanket over his head, turned his round face to the wall, and died.
Watching compassionately, Naomi was suddenly struck by the matter-of-fact way Ted examined the body. Ted wasn't surprised.
"Why did you tell Richard to stay outside, just now?" she demanded. "How did you know what we'd find here? And why didn't you tell me, so I could keep Richard at home?"
She saw Ted start, scalded by the splash of her self-directed anger, saw him try to convert his wince into a shrug.
"You insisted on coming," he reminded her gently. "I couldn't have kept you home without—without saying too much, worrying you—with the Earth-ship still a year away. Besides, I didn't know for sure, till we saw the tree-things around the cabin."
The tree-things. The trees-that-were-not. Gnarled blue trunks, half-hidden by yellow leaf-needles stretching twenty feet into the sky. Something like the hoary mountain hemlocks she and Ted had been forever photographing on their Sierra honeymoon, seven life-long years ago.
Three of those tree-things had swayed over Cappy's spring for a far longer time than Man had occupied this dreadful planet. Until just now ...
The three of them had topped the rise that hid Cappy's farm from their own. Richard was running ahead like a happily inquisitive puppy. Suddenly he'd stopped, pointing with a finger she distinctly recalled as needing thorough soapy scrubbing.
"Look, Mommie!" he'd said. "Cappy's trees have moved. They're around the cabin, now."
He'd been interested, not surprised. In the past year, Mazda had become Richard's home; only Earth could surprise him.
But, Ted, come to think of it, had seemed withdrawn, his face a careful blank. And she?
"Very pretty," she'd said, and stuffed the tag-end of fear back into the jammed, untidy mental pigeon-hole she used for all unpleasant thoughts. "Don't run too far ahead, dear."
But now she had to know what Ted knew.
"Tell me!" she said.
"There've been other deaths! How many?"
"Sixteen. But I didn't want to tell you. Orders were to leave women and children home when we had that last Meeting, remember."
"What did they say at the Meeting? Out with it, Ted!"
"That—that the tree-things think!"
"But that's ridiculous!"
"Well, unfortunately, no. Look, I'm not trying to tell you that